Pastoring through a pandemic, as it turns out, is really, really hard. Every pastor I know has been caught in the whirlwind of moving services online, managing health concerns, and trying to remain connected to the congregation but constantly feeling disconnected despite our efforts. I have not yet known a pastor who has felt that they have handled all things (or, frankly, even most things) adequately. In my ten years of pastoral ministry, I have never felt more like I’ve just been winging it, hoping to survive another week.
Our congregations are not only caught up in the health concerns associated with COVID19, but we’re now facing a number of other crises all at once. The health concerns have led to economic woes. The tragedy of George Floyd has led to heated conversations about race and injustice, police practices and budgets, and has brought back into the spotlight unsettled debates about statues, flags, etc. And while all these fires have been burning, we’ve thrown on top of them the gasoline of absurdly partisan and thoroughly hate-filled political propaganda. We’ve successfully eliminated any voice of reason from our conversations, villainized people who disagree with us (and those who just don’t agree with us eagerly enough), and drawn lines in the sand for which voices we’re willing to listen to, and which voices we actively oppose.
The more I reflect on all of this, though, the more I realize that Coronavirus, economic hardship, George Floyd’s death, and our tragic partisanship are not the causes of the chaos we feel right now. Rather, the chaos was always there, and this perfect-storm of circumstances has brought it all to the light, where it is twisting and writhing, desperate to drag itself back to the darkness where we can once again deny that we have real, severe problems and pretend like the chaos is structured and intentional.
And the responses I am seeing, especially on social media, only serve to amplify our problems. We pick teams (usually the red team or the blue team) and act as if anyone whose team opposes our team lacks the intelligence to live, oozes evil sludge out their pores, and has sold their soul to Satan. It’s tragic, and it’s beneath us. And we can do better than this.
So – Christian – I want to make a few suggestions for how we can do better, and how the chaos surrounding us can be brought to order, so that instead of the hopelessness that it threatens to leave us with, we instead find peace, rest, and even spiritual growth. When we look back at this time, instead of seeing it as a time when we became lost in the hopelessness that the world knows, we will see this as a time when God worked in a powerful way in our lives. I also want to try to navigate hot-button items like race, politics, and even things like mask-wearing from the framework of our Christian faith.
With that in mind, here are a few suggestions:
Commit to healthy spiritual disciplines. Spiritual disciplines include things like fasting, prayer, reading scripture, spending time in silence with God, etc. But I want to highlight one discipline that I think is especially beneficial for the time we’re in: Acceptance. Rather than fighting against what is, accept it. We are in a pandemic. Nothing we do will change that. No amount of denial will change it. No amount of rebelling against it will change it. The only thing we can do is accept it. We are in a pandemic.
A pandemic means that we have to accept that we are not in control, and the world is not as predictable today as it was yesterday. New things will be asked of us – and because we are in a pandemic, those things are not unreasonable. Being asked to wash your hands is not unreasonable. Being screened for a fever is not unreasonable. Wearing a mask in order to protect vulnerable people is not unreasonable. Because we accept that we are in a pandemic.
It is only when we accept what is that we can then ask, “how would Jesus call us to respond?” What does it look like to be a follower of Jesus during a pandemic? How does a follower of Jesus respond to the world with love, grace and compassion during a pandemic?
Press Pause. People love to criticize others for entitlement. But I’m not sure I have ever observed a period of greater entitlement than what I am seeing now. Maybe one of the realities that we have to accept is that we have been conditioned to be a very entitled people.
We expect that everything should be getting back to the broken version of “normal” that we’re use to. And when that doesn’t happen on our timeline, it makes us angry. But this isn’t a time to be angry with the world because it doesn’t line up with our unrealistic expectations of what normal should look like. This is a time, instead, to press pause, and ask ourselves why we have treated unhealthy things – like entitlement, selfishness, and greed – as normal.
Actually listen. Racial injustice is a real thing. It is a genuine problem. I’m distraught at the number of Christians who are in denial about this, and who say things like “but what about,” or choose to act as though racial injustice was a problem fifty years ago, but not today.
When it comes to difficult issues like these, we do three things really well: we listen to people who agree with our political affiliations, we speak the opinions of those people, and we become terribly defensive of the opinions of the people who agree with our political affiliations. But what we don’t often do well is listen to the people who are hurting and desperate to be heard.
Fellow Christians – your brothers and sisters are hurting. Do you hear them? Are you listening?
Repent of your idols. We are prone to a special kind of idolatry: the idolatry of the ideal version of our nation. We worship political platforms, politicians, versions of “America” that are idealized and serve our interests well, one-liner slogans, banners, and other forms of sinful nationalism.
In 1 Peter 2, we are urged to live as aliens in our land. We are citizens of the Kingdom of God, and our ways should not make sense to a person who views the world through the broken, polarized partisanship that surrounds us. Indeed, verse 12 urges us to live in such a way that even those who oppose us may see God’s goodness in our lives.
It is tragic that the church falls victim to extreme polarization, and it is evidence of idolatry among us.
Think of others first. As Christians, we’re called to deny ourselves. Scripture repeatedly calls followers of God to care first for the widows and the orphans. It calls us to honor our elders and look out for the well-being of society’s most vulnerable. Navigating a pandemic is hard, but selflessly caring for other people, even when it requires us to make sacrifices, is part of what being a Christian is all about.
To be very practical… wearing a mask should be common sense to a people who are self-sacrificial in nature. Caring for the people around us, even before ourselves, is a hallmark trait of Christianity.
Remember your mission. It isn’t to be right. It isn’t even to set the world right. Your mission in Christ isn’t to defend a constitution, fly a flag, or argue on behalf of a political party. You have been commanded to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself, and your mission is make disciples of all nations. The arrogance and pride the world has normalized works directly against our ability to complete our mission. If we are going to be a missional people, it will mean adopting humility and acting out of self-sacrificial love.
Release judgment. Not everyone who disagrees with you is a fool. Most people who disagree with you are not evil. Sometimes, you are wrong. Being angry with the world, villainizing the people who disagree with you, and allowing news personalities to incite a manufactured sense of outrage in you is a sign of immaturity in a person’s faith. If you feel judgment against people who voice disagreement with you, hold perspectives that you do not share, or are working to shape the world in ways you disagree with… let it go. Love them. Pray for them. Seek their good. These are signs of Christian maturity. Disagree peacefully and charitably. Be like Jesus.
And don’t lose sleep just because someone on the internet is wrong.
Image from https://xkcd.com/386/
Rest and have peace. This can be a time of spiritual growth. But if we try to control it, we’ll only wear ourselves out. If we try to fix something that only God can heal, we’ll work in vain and we’ll never know rest. If we allow ourselves to become angry, the only thing that will come out of it is that we will be angry people. If we allow ourselves to become fearful, the only result will be that we are fearful people.
We can’t control the chaos. But the good news is that we don’t have to. God is the redeemer of chaos. He is the one who brings order and structure to chaos and void (the tohu va bohu for those of you who pay attention during Bible study).
The only thing we can do – the only “control” we can have – happens when we release control, give our burdens to God, and pursue him. The only thing we can truly change is how much we are willing to surrender to God. The only control we have is over what we’re willing to let go of in order to give it to God.
So please, be concerned about important matters like the health and well-being of others, and act responsibly and self-sacrificially. Be concerned about the economy by giving generously. Be concerned about racial injustice by listening rather than speaking, and speaking only in ways that support rather than dismiss or tear down (even on those occasions when the support is thoughtfully and prayerfully corrective). Be concerned about politics by repenting of the ways we choose teams, divide our homes, and hurt one another. Accept what is, pray for God’s hand upon it, trust him and listen to him as he leads you through what it means for a Christian to navigate situations like the ones we face, and rest in the assurance that although we do not have control, our God is a God of redemption.
Friends – this is a time for our faith to thrive. But it won’t happen if we’re filled with unrighteous anger, division, fear, hatred, self-righteousness or pride. These are not markers of disciples of Jesus, and we can do better. It will take place through repentance, humility, and love.